The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a terrific opportunity for companies to connect with customers and prospects on a meaningful level. We are living in a unique time when many consumers are feeling insecure about their physical and financial health and are looking for ways to meet some basic needs. At the risk of sounding like your high school biology teacher, consumers are feeling a threat in the environment and their survival mechanisms are kicking in. Their emotional responses are heightened.
As marketers, this is our moment to shine. We specialize in connecting with consumers on an emotional level.
Plus, with digital platforms like email at our fingertips, we can quickly respond to uncertain situations that seem to change almost by the hour. Email provides a conduit for instant, relevant communication with customers. Many firms are trying this. If your inbox is anything like mine, you have likely seen a spike in activity from current and former vendors who are letting all of us know that they “are taking proper steps to maintain a safe environment and keep operations running so that customer needs can be met.” Not the emotional connection we’re looking for.
More than ever, we marketers need to remember some of the best practices and strategies that are core to successful email communication. If we want to achieve the emotional connection and generate the intended response, then we need to use the email channel the right way. There are a number of email best practices and strategies that can be put in place. Some take longer than others to implement. Since we’re in an uncertain situation where both information and emotions are changing by the hour, this article is going to focus on just three that any of us can implement for our very next email send. Those three are purpose, personalization and providing real value.
The go-to question that many of us ask before we send a marketing message or begin creating a campaign is, “Why are we doing this?” It is a good way to pause and make sure we have some form of strategic thought supporting our initiative and we are clear on our purpose.
I would like to offer a slight variation on this question. The one I like to ask is, “What outcome are we trying to achieve, and is this the best way to get it done?” OK, technically that was two questions, but when we ask this question it does a couple of things.
First, it focuses us on what we want as a result and how we’re going to measure that result. Two very important criteria to determine before pressing send. Do we want a reader to click on an offer, read our very next blog post, print off a coupon, etc.? We need to know what behavior we are trying to motivate. There are times when something is sent just to get a quick message out to a particular segment. But that should be an exception rather than the rule.
The second thing this question does is open us up to other channels and other possibilities. Because email is perceived as speedy, easy and cheap, executives are quick to send something when a different channel would have provided a better result. For instance, during this COVID situation I received a number of emails from the bank that manages my investment accounts. Email after email told me how they were standing with me during this crisis. Thanks, but why didn’t my broker just pick up the phone and give me a call to see how I was doing? That would’ve been a lot more impactful than an email from a faceless executive that I’ve never heard of who occupies an office I’ve never visited. Email is effective. But the right channel for the message is most effective.
So when we receive these requests for urgent email sends, let’s all vow to ask about the purpose and make sure we’re aimed at the right outcome. Let’s also make sure that email is the best channel for delivery.
We all know that personalization improves email engagement rates. I have seen a 35% increase in open and click-through rates when a personalized approach to our communications was used. But we sometimes get a little hesitant when it comes to personalization. We’re scared to personalize things too much. We might end up frightening the reader with how much we know about him or her. This is a valid concern.
I have my own personalization litmus test I use to help me get “just personal enough” with my communications. I call it my Binge Watching Test. I think about the personalized recommendations I see in my Hulu and Netflix feeds and how those companies make these very personal recommendations without making things uncomfortable.
Hulu and Netflix are setting the standard for personalization. Not just in the entertainment sector, but for all of us who are trying to connect with consumers. These companies know quite a bit about me via my choices in entertainment. (Side note: If you haven’t watched season three of “Ozark,” it’s amazing.) Netflix and Hulu both know my name and what I recently watched. I expect my bank, cable company, coffee shop or favorite retailer to know this too. My name and purchase history are fair game and help add a level of connection in a communication. In fact, if they don’t know these things or don’t communicate them to me, I feel a little neglected. Like I’m just another number to them.
After acknowledging my name and purchase history, Hulu and Netflix then back off a little and speak to me as a member of a particular segment. They know my preferences and can make recommendations without getting too personal. They let me know that if I liked “Ozark,” I might also like “Better Call Saul.” That’s safe, and it lets me know they’re looking out for me.
How would we apply this thinking to our COVID communications? Let’s start simple with a first name. I have received far too many emails this week that start with “Dear Valued Customer.” We can do better. Next, we can address some of the needs someone in a customer’s demographic segment may be experiencing. At the segment level we can speak to simple things like:
- Age. “You are beginning to think about retirement and likely wondering how this will impact your investments.”
- Location. “Cedar Rapids, Iowa has been affected by this epidemic.”
- Home ownership status. “When an epidemic occurs, living in a multi-family unit brings its own special set of circumstances.”
Each of us has some or all this data that we can weave into an email to make it truly personalized, and also useful to the reader.
Provide real value
Sending readers something that gives them genuine, tangible value. That’s the ultimate achievement. Any email we put in someone’s inbox needs to provide ROA, better known as Return on Attention. Our attention is a new form of currency. Everyone wants our attention, and many try the email inbox as the main method of gaining it. When we receive something of value and it was worth our attention, we usually feel good about the time we spent with the content and end up clicking through to learn more. When we don’t get that ROA, we send it to the spam penalty box. Or give the death sentence with a click of unsubscribe.
When we marketers send something to customers or prospects, we should always try to give them something that measurably changes their lives for the better and makes them glad that they chose to open that email. We marketers often convince ourselves that what we are sending is value-add communications. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve told myself that the coupon I am blasting out to the entire world is a value add. Or that an offer I’ve disguised as a newsletter will improve someone’s situation. When I avoid the truth, I usually fall short in my duty to provide real value.
The companies I am seeing do the best job of adding real value during the COVID situation are, believe it or not, banks and insurance companies. As we consumers all swim about looking for a life preserver in this COVID storm, we are seeing some very creative ways that banks and insurance companies are helping their customers solve real problems. There’s the key. They are helping their customers solve real problems. Here are some of the best examples I’ve seen:
- Chase is offering to delay late fees on mortgages, loans and credit cards.
- Starling Bank is offering to wave checking overdraft fees for the next 90 days.
- GEICO is providing a 15% refund on insurance premiums.
These offers do more than generate good will, they show the customer that the company is paying attention to their needs and providing something that the customer can actually use.
This doesn’t mean we have to give away profits (but I’ll keep my 15% from GEICO, thank you). There are other ways to provide real value. We just need to be creative and focus on the problem that needs solving. Sittercity did just this with a consumer need they discovered. Parents needed to keep their kids entertained at home so they could get some work done. In response, Sittercity began offering virtual, remote babysitting. A sitter gets online via Zoom with your child and plays games, reads stories, etc. Genius!
We are living in some amazing times that presents marketers with an opportunity to connect with consumers on an emotional level. We have both the situation and the technology available to quickly respond to a situation and present our target audiences with a relevant, memorable experience that generates a positive behavioral response. We can do this if we stick to some core tenants of email marketing. With each send we need to make sure we have a purpose, personalize the message, and provide real value to the reader. When we do these three things, good things happen.